In late November, 5 Pointz, a 20-year-old mecca for graffiti artists from around the world (and an unofficially historic building in New York) was vandalized. A graffiti covered building being vandalized, sounds ironic. In this case the "vandal" to many was the building's owner, who had the building facades whitewashed to prepare it for demolition. Twenty years worth of art was destroyed in the process, along with it's cultural significance.
There had been a move to declare the buildings a landmark, which might have prevented them from being torn down and converted into condos, which is the current plan. Unfortunately the petitions and protests were not enough to protect the space.
I had only visited the unofficial museum of 5 Pointz once but it had a lasting impact on me. I remember staring up at the buildings and being completely awed by what aerosol-propelled paint was capable of. I was glad to see a cleaner side to graffiti. I think it gets a bad rap, most people associate graffiti with tags, the sloppy scribbles of gangs and teenagers. Not many take the time to understand that there is real beauty in some of this "vandalism." However, not everyone sees the beauty, and the demolition of 5 Pointz is an example of social controversy and debate, forcing us to ask some complicated questions:
When does art enter eminent domain?
When does art supersede the rights of the individual?
What determines art and how and who decides such a thing?
Art to one observer can be seen completely differently to another, if at all. Pair vandalism with art and you're in a tougher, tricky area without easy answers.
Had I been the owner, I think I would have chosen differently. Selling the space for housing developments would never have crossed my mind. I feel that art -- in any form -- is the soul's way of communicating. I wouldn't want to be responsible for censoring that.
Graffiti is street art taken to the rooftops and buildings and windows and anything else within the visual scope of things saying "Hey, I'm here and this is what I need to tell you." To me, 5 Pointz was like reading hundreds of different stories at once. Not just personal ones, but also stories displaying parts of the city's grittier history. It gave viewers a new vantage point in which to see things. It made me want to understand people more. It made me want to know the city more.
The loss of 5 Pointz hurts. Many feel a piece of their culture and heritage was taken from them. But what if we saw the whitewash as the owner's way of expressing himself as well? What if we saw that whitewash as 5 Pointz's final installment? I'm reminded of what Christo said in response to some of his critics:
"I am an artist, and I have to have courage. Do you know that I don't have any artworks that exist? They all go away when they're finished. Only the preparatory drawings, and collages are left, giving my works an almost legendary character. I think it takes much greater courage to create things to be gone than to create things that will remain."
If you created the art, if you witnessed the art, it's still there. Whitewash can't touch your memories or the feelings evoked from the experience. Who knows, maybe the new condos will add a beauty to the city we hadn't thought about. And to some, they might just be blank canvases waiting to be used.
Where does graffiti stand in your perception of art? Does art ever become more important than the individual, and does all art deserve to be saved?
Naomi Mac Millan is a contributing writer for SoulPancake.com, the online community for speaking your mind, exploring life's big questions, and otherwise figuring out what it means to be human in a big brain batter of art, science, faith, philosophy, comedy, and talk shows in the back of Rainn Wilson's van.